The Blackest Questions

The Black Veterans Project CEO turned his struggles into purpose

Episode 32

A former student of Dr. Christina Greer joins The Blackest Questions to share some laughs and hardships with his mentor. While playing along with Black history trivia, Richard Brookshire also gets candid about his mental health struggles and explains why starting The Black Veterans Project was a defining moment in his life.


Panama Jackson [00:00:00] You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network Black Culture Amplified. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:00:06] Hi and welcome to the Blackest Questions. I’m your host, Dr. Christina Greer, politics editor for theGrio and associate professor of political science at Fordham University. In this podcast, we ask our guest five of the Blackest questions so we can learn a little bit more about them and have some fun while we’re doing it. We’re also going to learn a lot about Black history past and present. So here’s how this works. We have five rounds of questions about us. Black history, the entire diaspora, current events, you name it. And with each round, the questions get a little tougher and the guest has 10 seconds to get it right. If they answer the question correctly, they’ll receive one symbolic breakfast and they’ll hear this. And if they get it wrong, they’ll hear this. But we still have them anyway. And after the five questions, there’s a Black bonus round at the end just for fun. And I like to call it Black Lightning. Our guest for this episode is organizer and creator Richard Brookshire. Richard is the co-founder of the Black Veterans Project. As a storyteller, Richard leverages a background in political communication, integrated marketing, digital advocacy and documentary filmmaking to deliver strategic and dynamic social impact campaigns. He’s previously served as director of communications for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and was the first person of color to lead political communications at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s preeminent LGBTQ civil rights organization. Richard is an alum of Columbia University and Morehouse College and Fordham University and is a former infantry combat medic and U.S. Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan. His work has been highlighted by the New York Times, USA Today, Reuters, The Washington Post, BBC, CNN, The Root, and many others. I am so excited to welcome Richard Brookshire to the Blackest Questions. Richard, thank you so much for joining us. 

Richard Brookshire [00:01:53] And you made me sound like a big dilemma. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:01:56] You’re a huge deal. You’re a huge deal to me for a host of reasons. One, I don’t know if our listeners know this, but Richard is my former student. Two, Richard is my only student who’s a double Greer, in that, you were my student at Fordham and you’re also my student at Columbia University at SIPA. 

Panama Jackson [00:02:13] At this point, I don’t blame you for all the good and the bad. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:02:16] All the good and the bad. 

Richard Brookshire [00:02:17] All the good and bad. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:02:18] I am so incredibly proud of you, to say the least, because when I met you, you had lots of ideas. I remember you worked on this amazing paper about Eldridge Cleaver, and then over the years you’ve made documentary films, and then you you co-founded this amazing organization on the Black Veterans Project. Can you tell our listeners about this organization and why you started it and the necessity for it today? 

Richard Brookshire [00:02:43] Yeah. Well, thank you for that. I mean, I think a lot of this work would not have been possible without your mentorship, your guidance, your love and support. So let me shout that out first. But I. Black Veterans Project was born out of my own experience, right, as a Black vet I served for seven years. I was a combat medic, made a transition out of graduate school, and on paper folks were like, you know this, he’s killing it, right? But internally, I was not. I don’t think I had checked in with myself for like a good decade by the time I graduated from SIPA. And it was at the outset of Trump becoming president of shifting kind of racial landscape in this country with the rise of Black Lives Matter and a real life interrogation for me about like, where do I fit in all of this? Right? And how can I do work that that is of substance is and is a value. And so long story short, I struggle with my mental health and trying to figure that out and ended up almost homeless. If it wasn’t for my mother moving to New York and getting a tiny apartment in Brooklyn to help rebuild or rehabilitate me after a suicide attempt. And it was just so happens that when I was in the psych ward, there was a book that I read called When Affirmative Action Was White and is a book by Ira Katz Nelson, a historian out of Columbia. And he had two chapters dedicated to the GI Bill. And the GI Bill was this humongous social welfare program instituted right directly following World War Two that afforded many Americans pathways to middle class for the first time. Right? Like so like zero back home loand. Enabled most working class people to be, you know, a lot of working class people, rather the access to buy a home for the first time for their families and build generational wealth, access to money to go to college for the first time. 

Richard Brookshire [00:04:20] And so I had just come out of studying at SIPA where I was, had a good grounding in how kind of the great migration, the the development of American cities, deindustrialization, the fall of American cities and the eventual rise. And so putting that in context, wanting to understand that I was part of a legacy of Black vets that came, went to war, came back, struggled because they didn’t have access to their benefits. And, you know, also trying to struggling to find a place in society. And so I realized that the story that I was experiencing and that I was reading about in different books, I couldn’t find anything about it online, you know, And my generation was different from the older generations who had spaces to congregate. All we really had was the Internet because there was a lot few of us. There were way less of us than there used to be by way of Black folk who were serving in these conflicts. And so long story short, there was a recognition that, you know, there was a space to tell the broader story of the Black veteran experience relative to race in America, both historically but also get a better grounding in what was happening around race in the military today. Like the general statistics. Veteran advocacy around access to benefits today. And so we’ve done a lot just with that thesis, right? 

Richard Brookshire [00:05:36] So the last four years, we’ve organized a lot. We’ve gotten connected to most Black vet organizations across the country that has some semblance of a relationship or a touchpoint with. And we started a research project with Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic, where we studied just the last 20 years disparities with respect to disability allocation and were able to to show that there were still systemic and widespread disparities affecting Black vets. Even today, with respect to like access to disability compensation, which is an economic support mechanism that so many rely on for stability, especially when they make transition. Right. And then wanting to then marry that to a longer legacy of benefit obstruction, whether it be around the GI Bill or whether it be around the ways in which Black vets were conscripted from inner cities in Vietnam and then stripped of their benefits and and they came back. And that story has never really been told in totality. Right. And like wanting to to to show how that shifting relationship of Black America with the military is in some in many respects, still there’s still some tension there. And yeah, the project works with a lot of media partners and we have some really cool academic partnerships to help foster and amplify research in this area. And that’s that’s what we’ve been doing and organizing a little bit on a hill around one specific piece of legislation that I can talk about later. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:06:57] Well, fun fact, I was  Ira Katznelson’s research assistant for When Affirmative Action was White. 

Richard Brookshire [00:07:02] Oh, I never knew that. Okay. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:07:04] Yeah. It’s all full circle. But, you know, I’ll never forget we were having a conversation years ago, and you said that, you know, you met a young a young serviceman just, you know, out at a restaurant and you were chatting and he wasn’t even aware of some of the benefits that he was eligible for, for education. And you were essentially, I think this is before you fully formed the project, when you were saying, well, wait a minute, you know, you’re in the armed services, but you don’t even know that you’re entitled to all these real benefits that other folks were being recruited, being promised these benefits. And that’s part of the reason why they were signing up. This guy signed up not even knowing that, you know, he could get college tuition remission and and move forward with his educational pursuits once he leaves the service or even while he was in the service. 

Richard Brookshire [00:07:47] Yeah, I think that’s what we’ve been able to bear out through our research, too, is that like, you know, how racism and discrimination can show up or the disparities can manifest are manifold, right? It’s not just only nefarious discriminatory intent. It is also what is left unsaid. What is left unsaid? What is left on mental ward in a young person making a transition who might not know and be able to access or be intimidated by trying to navigate the bureaucracies of the VA. And there are real economic and social consequences when you don’t, Right. Especially for those that struggle in transition. And I have to say, like there is a more recent study that’s actually forthcoming, it should be published in the next couple of weeks, but it basically is shown that over the last five years, just the last five years in the military, Black folk are still highly disproportionate in the number of dishonorable discharges that are actually happening. So what that means that you get you don’t get an honorable discharge, you don’t get access to this large social welfare system and that’s really what we’re talking about is I think that a lot of folks can kind of like, oh, I’m not a vet, I’m not related to that. So this conversation doesn’t inform me. And in some ways it doesn’t maybe, but in some ways it does, because one of the things that all Americans are fighting for access to to some sort, some level of social safety net around education, around housing, around health care. Well, you’re supposed to be able to get afforded that if you if you serve. But there is a history in this country of stripping the Black folks that serve of access to this social welfare apparatus that is then used to, like, solidify and or hopefully allow you a pathway to the American middle class. Right. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:09:18] Right. 

Richard Brookshire [00:09:18] And so I’m interested in studying more of that and passing that out. But to your point, I come across it every day. You know, I’ve experienced it myself, you know, so. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:09:28] Oh, I’m so proud of you. I’m so thankful for your service. And I’m super thankful that you’re joining us today on the Blackest Questions. Are you ready to get started? 

Richard Brookshire [00:09:37] I hope I keep my Black card. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:09:37] Listen, you know, and as my listeners know, I was on my my Grio sibling, the Panama Jackson’s podcast, Dear Culture, and he turned the tables and I played the Black ask questions and I was oh for two. So this is an opportunity for us to just celebrate Black people. Black history is American history. And. We go from there. Right. And so we’ll learn a little bit together. So are you ready for the first question? 

Richard Brookshire [00:10:02] Yes. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:10:03] Okay. A pioneer in the field of neurosurgery. He was a candidate for president of the United States in the 2016 Republican primary. 

Richard Brookshire [00:10:13] Ben Carson. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:10:15] That is correct. So Benjamin Solomon Carson was born in Detroit, Michigan, on September 18th, 1951, and Ben Carson was eight years old his parents divorced, and his father, Robert Carson, a Baptist minister and factory worker, left Detroit, leaving the family in financial ruin. Carson and his older brother, Curtis were raised by their mother, who earned a living doing domestic work. Carson then studied psychology at Yale University and graduated in 1973. And then he attended the University of Michigan Medical School. So on May 3rd, 2015, Carson announced his bid for the presidency a day before his scheduled campaign kickoff in Detroit, Michigan. He suspended his campaign for president on March 4th, 2016, at the Conservative Political Action Committee. We know that at CPAC and Carson failed to win any of the 11 states holding the presidential primary elections for the Republican nomination. So I brought up Ben Carson, because you also have a medical background. You are a medical professional background as a combat medic specialist, and you administered emergency medical care in the field in both combat and humanitarian situations. And both of your parents, I’m told, completed military service. So what prompted you to join the military? And did you choose becoming a combat medic specialist, or was it chosen for you? 

Richard Brookshire [00:11:29] Right. Well, one, shout out to you, be an inclusive. Shout out to Ben Carson. And the second thing is. I mean, I think that so another thing that I think can happen oftentimes to folks who don’t know, I mean, I have both family members who both, my mom and my dad who served in the military, but I was estranged from my father. My mother did not want me to join. So. Right. So I didn’t have that to lean on, really, for any kind of mentorship when I was trying to sign up. But long story short, I wasn’t able to get the job that I wanted and not because I was denied anything, but because I was discouraged. I wanted to go into the military to do psych ops. Like I really you know, I just was fascinated by, but by one the ability of psych ops to impact a political condition like political thought, but also just, you know, it was something that sounded fun and that that I could build a career on potentially. Long story short, they basically were like, well, you had got a little bit of student loans. I taken out a small loan when I was at Morehouse because I had a full academic scholarship. So I didn’t have that much loans, but I had some some loans from when I attended Morehouse that I had. And they were like, Well, you’re not going to be able to get security clearance because you have loans that are unpaid, like student loans that go unpaid. So I was like, okay, so what jobs are available? And most of them, the two that I kind of almost settled on were either being like, like a paper pusher, helping JAG officers, essentially like an attorney or a paralegal basically in the military or being a combat medic. 

Richard Brookshire [00:12:55] And I knew that for me, the Guiding Light was whatever I do, I want to make sure that I’m helping people. And so and I think because out of West Indian mom who was a nurse, she was like medical training, you know, become a nurse and then go find stability. Like, she’s always like you know, do that, do the practical thing and get a law degree and then go figure out what you want to do with your life. Life is just kind of that. So I ended up choosing that for whatever reason. I mean, I’m happy that I don’t have to say I’m happy. That feels like a gross overstatement of my feeling. But like I it happened. I was a combat medic for seven years, was quite good at it. But I it wasn’t something that I was necessarily passion I think I’m passionate about. I really was passionate about to make sure that I helped people. And so that’s what brought me to the work. But like, you know, the mechanics of the body and just the kind of folks that were attracted to that kind of work, I’m okay. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:13:44] Okay. And you didn’t you didn’t use that as a launchpad to want to go to medical school? 

Richard Brookshire [00:13:51] No, I knew pretty right away that like I, I don’t want to be in medicine, but here here I’m I’m kind of not neccessarily I stuck with like I couldn’t switch my job I had started Right so unfortunately this is how the military works and but there were all the other you know, we’re at a time of war, so like they lay of the job I just wasn’t interested in. And so it was unfortunate that I didn’t get the the psych ops position. But I’ll say this is where I where I think a lot of discrimination can happen, sometimes unknowingly or sometimes deliberately. You know, I got my security clearance as soon as I got to my first duty station because I had to handle medical records. So, you know, at the end of the day, it was something that the recruiter shouldn’t have done to discourage me from even applying or attempting. Right. And so you have is overrepresentation of Black folk in service oriented roles that are like a maintenance of a kind of codified law where Black folk could be in the infantry units, where they would get promoted and be able to become high ranking officials. Black folk aren’t told about, you know, being able to go to the West Points of the world or Annapolis of the world. And so again, back to what we’re not told, what’s not shared or what we’re discouraged from trying to do. Right,. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:14:56] Right. 

Richard Brookshire [00:14:56] And how I could have had a totally different military career. If I would have just either one had a Black recruiter or two wasn’t  discouraged from at least attempting, because I know I was being stifled in some respects by someone who probably didn’t think that I deserved to have such a cool job. I don’t know what their intent was, but I don’t think it was because they thought I wasn’t going to get a security clearance. In hindsight. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:15:16] Exactly. Oh my gosh. I’m going to learn so much today. And I know our listeners are on the edge of their seats. We’re talking to Richard Brookshire, the co-founder of the Black Veterans Project. And we’ll be right back. And we’re back. And you’re listening to the Blackest Questions. I’m here with Richard Brookshire. Richard, thank you so much for joining us. Are you ready for question number two? 

Richard Brookshire [00:15:40] Yes. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:15:42] Okay. Question number two, the world’s most widely spoken Creole language belongs to what country? 

Richard Brookshire [00:15:48] Haiti. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:15:49] All right. Ding, ding, ding. I was about to say, if you don’t get this one, I will come through the screen. 

Richard Brookshire [00:15:54] Louisiana. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:15:55] Right. So Haitian Creole, commonly referred to simply as Creole in the great language, is a French based Creole language spoken by 10 to 12 million people worldwide and is one of the two official languages of Haiti, the other being French where it is the native language of the majority of the population and the language emerge from contact between French settlers and enslaved Africans? During the Atlantic slave trade in the French colony of center Maine. Now Haiti, the 17th and 18th centuries. And though its vocabulary largely derives from 18th century French, its grammar is that of West African Volta Kongo language branch. Particularly the Fongbe language and Igbo language. It also has influences from Spanish, English, Portuguese, Taino and other West African languages. And Haitian Creole is spoken in regions that have received migration from Haiti, including other Caribbean islands French Guyana, France, Canada, particularly Quebec and the United States. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:16:48] So our listeners don’t know this, but I have been to both of Richard’s graduations from Fordham University and from Columbia University, and I am that person that comes that all I want to do is eat all of the Haitian rice. I was trying to have conversations with family and friends, but all I did was walk around with my multiple plates of rice. I don’t even need anything else besides my rice and beans. But do you have an elementary understanding of French and Creole and, you know, do you speak it often in your family? 

Richard Brookshire [00:17:22] I don’t actually. I mean, well, I do have an elementary understanding of Creole, so I lived in Haiti for a brief period when I was in elementary school. If it wasn’t for the overthrow of Aristide, who was the first democratically elected president of Haiti, I would have gone to school there and received all my primary education there. But my mom ended up pulling me out and send me back to Florida when, you know, essentially all the signs were there that he was about to be overthrown. So I you know, I spoke it then, and it’s funny, but with French, I had French tutor since I was small, went all the way to AP French in high school. I think I got my college credit. Still can’t speak a lick. I can’t. Couldn’t tell you. I can read a little bit, you know, I just. I just I never used it. Right. And and in part because I think there was one I was always been a little bit of a rebel. And when I was when I was living in when I was living in Haiti, you know, you speak French at school like it’s what’s codified. And, you know, Creole becoming an official language of Haiti is only more recent. Right. It’s always been kind of looked down upon class as a real thing, you know, to any country. But in Haiti, it’s very stark. Any of the upper class, the mulatto class or whatever, you know, however they want to qualify them themselves, of which my family was a part. Like you look down on folks that spoke Creole, right? We spoke Creole, maybe amongst each other. When we’re out on public you’re speaking French or whatever. So I always rebelled and just wanted to speak Creole. Like one it was just easier. And it felt like there were less rules, you know, you could just learn it and communicate. Where In French it was like 30 different ways to say the same thing, depending on what the object was, it was as confusing. There’s too many rules. And so I rebelled against it. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:19:03] All I know is all I know is sak pase 

Richard Brookshire [00:19:06] That’s good. N’ap boule. You know whatever. 

[00:19:08] Right. So I know that there’s there’s quite a bit of political unrest taking place in Haiti right now. And there’s a lot of conversation about U.S. military intervention. Now, as someone who identifies as Haitian and someone who is also a U.S. veteran. How are you kind of negotiating those two spaces? 

Richard Brookshire [00:19:29] Mm hmm. It’s so funny you say that, because my mom was actually visiting over the weekend and I it can be kind of touching base on what kind of what’s happening in Haiti. But for the most part, some many folks that I know and love most of my family has left. Right. And so there’s this kind of like ongoing tension about what’s the future of the country and what you know, what. And every time I’ve been wanting to go back for almost a decade now, it’s like every single time I even think about trying to go back. I’m just highly discouraged from doing so, which is it is deeply unfortunate for me. And I think that and for, you know, my future nephews and my nieces and and all of those that might not be able to interface with Haiti in the same way that I did as a child because they have such fond memories of the country. 

Richard Brookshire [00:20:08] But yeah, the political situation in Haiti is very complicated and very real. And ultimately American intervention has always proven to not be the right answer, you know? You know, ultimately, and I think that just as America went through its own civil wars and had self self-determined, I think that we need to allow a country like. Haiti to self-determine. I think there has been too many times where American intervention, because of their own socio political interest, has borne out a lot of blowback. Right. And a lot of negative consequences for the folks that have to stay in that island and deal with the political precariousness or the corruption or the or the the lack of real movement toward change. Because America, American interests or Western interests think that Haiti should be operating in a particular way. Right. And they’re going to leverage all of what their their their powers to ensure that it does, you know, fit into this global schema that we have in a very particular way. And I don’t think we can also, like ignore that America has always played a role to undermine kind of self-determination in Haiti. From the outset of the revolutions around the early 1800s and to its independence in 1804, all the way to the American intervention in in the 1920s, you know, one of the one of the longest wars or occupations in American history was in Haiti and how that destabilized the country for generations. On top of what France has done right now. 

Richard Brookshire [00:21:41] And, you know, you’re thinking about what happened with the fall of Duvalier when you had Duvalier was a Haitian dictator, was a long serving dictator. I mean, his son or rule over the country for over 30 years. That’s really when my family’s relationship changed with the country. My grandmother fled to the United States in 1969, would go back and obviously after the Duvalier regime had fallen. But long story short, I’m not my mom. Under the Duvalier regime, she went to boarding school in Haiti, and she says, one, no country was probably the most stable, you know, unfortunately. And then you had Aristide when Aristide, you know, was a democratically elected president. And then, you know, you have entrenched political interests in the West that that look at him as a problem figure because he’s asking for reparations when, you know, Haiti expended so much of its of its GDP for the first hundred years of its existence on paying back this reparations to France. And then you have tariffs that are being used, all these different types of economic sanctions being used to cripple the Haitian economy. So it’s just that every I say all that to say that it’s complicated and obviously I’ve not stated it, you know, all of the facts. But these facts should be heavily considered when we think about American intervention and and also just the the the way in which the Haitian people, especially the folks that that I know kind of view American, had Yemeni view of American intervention as something that they did that they don’t want. Right. So, yeah. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:23:09] I would love to hear you in conversation with folks from Puerto Rico as well, because there’s so many similarities. There’s some stark differences, obviously, but there are a lot of similarities about American intervention, economics being at the root of all this and obviously the military, too. We’re going to take a quick break. And coming back, we will continue our conversation with Richard Brookshire on the Blackest Questions. Okay, we’re back and we are playing the Blackest Questions with Richard Brookshire, co-founder of the Black Veterans Project. Richard, thank you so much for being here. I love our conversations and I’m so thankful that I’ve had so many years of being a mentor and friend. And now I get to learn from you in a host of ways. Okay, so are you ready for question number three? 

Richard Brookshire [00:23:55] Yes. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:23:56] Okay. Known as the father of ice cream, this African-American Philadelphian had done for ice cream what Henry Ford had done for cars. He did not invent ice cream, but invented a way to make it last long enough to be shipped and sold. Who was he? 

Richard Brookshire [00:24:14] I have no idea. Ben Jerry. Ben and Jerry. But they from Vermont. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:24:20] This is Augustus Jackson. Augustus Jackson was born April 16th in 1808 and was an African-American ice cream maker and confectioner from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And this was a free Black man who moved to Philadelphia when he was freed and started to make his ice cream on Good Water Street. Jackson served as a chef in the White House during the 1820s, and he died January 11th in 1852. So with African-American studies degrees from Morehouse, you studied, obviously, race and politics with me at various institutions. Do you dabble in ever trying to learn a little bit more about Black inventors? And sort of when you’re reading books, I think this is my question, when you’re trying to learn a bit more not just about Black history, but Black diasporic history, What are you drawn to? 

Richard Brookshire [00:25:11] Mm hmm. That’s a good question. I would say I probably don’t look at Black inventors as much. But I think one thing that I’m super drawn to is the relationship in history between Black America and the American military, because I think it says so much about history, it says so much about economic structures, it says so much about power, it says so much about race, it says so much about the distribution of resources, the social or social welfare systems. It says so much about generational wealth, it says so much about, it’s such a commentary on the evolution of slavery and indentured servitude. It’s I mean it I mean, like, there’s just so much there. So I spent so much of my time reading about, like the history between that and the relationship between the American military and and Black America. Like, really And I sometimes dabble in like a little bit of history with respect to the military and interventions across the world and global conflicts. And then kind of I’m also, I guess, even more interested in some respects in like. Empire propagates itself and the different kind of US spheres of empire and influence and its implications, I think, for Black folk as well.  

Dr. Christina Greer [00:26:25] For me, as someone who loves to travel internationally, I always think about Black servicemen who had traveled the world essentially as ambassadors for America, and they were oftentimes treated and sometimes in certain cases still treated better abroad than they are in their own nation wearing a uniform, defending the American empire. You know, I always think about there’s a great short Black and white film by Melvin Van Peebles called Three-Day Pass that he did in the sixties about a Black serviceman who’s in France and has a three day vacation pass, and he goes off and falls in love. But this idea that Black men and women, you know, traveled abroad to represent a nation that really struggled with any sort of respect for them and equitable treatment and still trying to negotiate and process that. And as I read, you know, some of the work that the Black Veterans Project is doing, I’m still trying to have a conversation about that because I’ve had, you know, family members know direct family, some uncles, great uncles who were in the Air Force, which I thought was the the Blackest of the armed forces. I didn’t realize that that one of the least integrated, but every one of my family was in the Air Force. My aunt and uncle were in the Air Force. So I just thought that that’s where all the Black people went. And that is not true. 

Richard Brookshire [00:27:47] And not true in a lot of ways. I mean, both historically and like present day. I mean, also it’s like the Air Force is probably some of the starkest numbers around racial disparities with respect to discipline, with respect to discharges for African-Americans, even though, you know, they while quantify a small number. I think the Navy is I want to say the Navy is the first or the, Army Navy is are definitely top ten and they’re bigger forces. So I think that that’s that that’s, you know, to to to be expected. But also like Black, you know, the Air Force is is you know, look, there’s a book actually let pull it up, I’m going to just give it a shout out because I’m partnering them. Matthew Delmont’s Half American. No, there’s this book called Have American by Matthew Delmont actually just came out today and there’s a chapter it talks about during World War Two, how the Tuskegee Institute, became this kind of bastion of possibility for Black Americans to potentially get into aviation. But there was so there were so many barriers. And it wasn’t until the Tuskegee Airmen and it was just like kind of laying out a lot of that history and that that’s still born today. You do not see as many Black fighter pilots. You don’t see as many Black folk in like elite specialty roles in the military broadly. Right. And there are many, many, many reasons for that. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:29:03] We’re going to move on and take a quick commercial break. And then when we come back, we’ll continue playing the Blackest Questions with Richard Brookshire. Okay, We’re back. We’re playing the Blackest Questions. Richard, are you ready for question number four? 

Richard Brookshire [00:29:19] Yes. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:29:20] Okay. He was the second Black playwright to win the award and later adapted the play into an Oscar nominated film, A Soldier’s Story. 

Richard Brookshire [00:29:30] Yes. I should know this because we partnered with them for the Broadway play and gave out tickets. Oh, he died this past year. I’m not even alive. I was going to say Richard Wright, but I know that’s not right. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:29:44] Charles Fuller. That’s right. Charles Fuller won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1982 for A Soldier’s Play, which finally made it to Broadway. 38 years later, in a production that earned two Tony Awards. The play was first staged in 1981 by the Negro Ensemble Company with a cast that included Denzel Washington. Fuller was only the second Black playwright to win the Pulitzer for drama. Charles Edward Gordon won in 1974 No Place to Be Somebody. And Fuller’s plays often examined racism and sometimes join his background as an Army veteran. And he did die recently on October 4th, 2022, at the age of 83. So you’re familiar with Charles Fuller’s work. When you saw A Soldier’s Story. What resonated sort of from the past and some of the present work that you that you’re doing now with the Black Veterans Project? 

A Solider’s Story [00:30:31] Well, like you, well, you just make a scene like food at home, he goes. These whites don’t hear it. They won’t see their duty or justice. They’ll just see you. And once they do law, due process, it all goes. What is the point of continuing an investigation that can’t possibly get at the truth? 

Richard Brookshire [00:30:53] It’s funny that you say that because when I saw the Soldier Story, I didn’t like it. I did not like the play. And not to say that it wasn’t well acted, but there was just something about it that felt hollow. And I’m trying to remember exactly what what exactly what it was. But I remember I Googled the only person that saw this, and Amiri Baraka wrote an op ed on A Soldier’s Play back when it had its initial run and basically articulated all that. All the reasons that I felt internally about it, like why this play just felt like it just hit missed the mark in some ways. And I can’t I can’t, you know, recall exactly what he said, but go read Amiri Baraka, the op ed on A Soldier’s Play. I think it’s a really interesting perspective and I remember being in full agreement and alignment about what that perspective was with respect to like that play, because a lot of folks love it. And I just remember leaving the theater feeling a little empty by and I don’t remember exactly why. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:31:52] Well, you know, I see a lot of theater, and so I always have some strong feelings for certain plays that, you know, some folks love, and especially when it’s a Black play and it can be a little complicated whenever anything, it’s the greatest ever. And I’m just like, I’ve got notes. So I know that you you’ve made documentaries and, you know, your visual representation of some of your work is a really important component. Have you ever thought about writing a play, though, to either talk about some of your experiences or a composite play to put together these experiences of other veterans that you’ve been researching and speaking to for the Black Veterans Project? 

Richard Brookshire [00:32:29] I’ve never thought about it. I mean, it seems like a really worthwhile creative endeavors and you never know. Like, you know, we might be planting a little seed. I don’t know. But no, I have not I have not thought about play. I’ve certainly, I think more recently just been focused on like documentary filmmaking and I like and also just like archive and like archiving, you know, the stories that are existing right now. But I think, you know, maybe catch me in ten years and see what I want to do with those stories once I’ve caught them, because I probably my mind will start spinning I think at some point once that. Yeah, but we’re right now we’re in the midst of standing up. Our first documentary feature being produced by Eric Alexander. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:33:08] Tell us a little bit more about that, that documentary. And this is Erika Alexander from Living Single, also Pam from The Cosby Show. I mean, she’s she’s done some really great work, you know, in television and movies over time. I mean, she was a little girl when she first started acting. So tell us more about this documentary that you all are working on. 

Richard Brookshire [00:33:25] So keeping it a super high level and not giving away too much, it’s essentially about a untold American hero, a woman, one of the only women inducted into the Intelligence Hall of Fame. Only Black women were the only three Black women inducted into the Military Hall of Fame. So that’s at hand. And yeah, we seek to tell her story and about in her impact specifically around the Vietnam War. It’s about like kind of retelling the story of Vietnam and the ways in which America remembers it through this woman’s experience in how she could have impacted the war if not for particular things happening. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:34:04] So now there’s so many heroes known and unknown. How do you all go about choosing who you want to highlight and honor? 

Richard Brookshire [00:34:14] Well, I mean, I think that as of right now, it’s been so much of our work has been in focused on policy advocacy and research. And so we’re actually just now starting to stand up how we do storytelling. Right. So it’s like and then how we can use that storytelling to then hopefully influence other policy. And inevitably, I think this particular story was brought to me. So I’m just, however privileged to be helping to produce it. I’m not directing it. It’s being directed by someone by name of Kristina Brown Fisher and Lisa Janae, two really, really good friends. And she’s a journalist and she’s been working on this story for the better part of two years. So I think, you know, there’s so many amazing stories. So at this particular point, it’s kind of where we can develop synergy with other creatives that want to tell it, especially depending on scale, right? Like, this is our first documentary feature. So that’s that’s a big endeavor, right? And so so yeah, it’s, it’s been on the scale of the story and you know, and kind of where we can get community support, where we can collaborate. You know, obviously there are smaller scale stories that I’ve been engaged in helping to proliferate Intel and working with media partners or helping place folks in media and stuff like that, which is it’s smaller, it’s easier, right? The ending of a film project is a lot, so. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:35:32] Well, promise you’ll come back when the documentary is ready to rock and roll. And so we can we can discuss it and demystify it. Okay. You’ve been listening to the Blackest Questions with Richard Brookshire from the Black Veterans Project. We’ll be right back. Okay, We’re back and talking to Richard Brookshire. Richard, are you ready for question number five? 

Richard Brookshire [00:35:54] Yes. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:35:55] In the War of 1812, Cochran’s proclamation of 1814 offered Americans who joined British forces freedom and land in British colonies. Thousands of enslaved African-Americans heeded the call. Several settled in Trinidad, established enduring communities, and were known as. 

Richard Brookshire [00:36:13] Oh, I heard this the other day. Lord. What were they known as? We all want to get out. Only have 10 seconds and I ain’t going to get this. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:36:23] They were known as Merikins. 

Richard Brookshire [00:36:26] Merikins. Yes. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:36:27] The Merikins were African-American. Marines of the War of 1812, former African enslaved people who fought for the British against the U.S. in the Corps of Colonial Marines. And then after post war service in Bermuda, were established as a community in the south of Trinidad in 1815 and 1860. They were settled in an area populated by French speaking Catholics and retained cohesion as an English speaking Baptist community. It’s sometimes said that the term Merikins derived from the local patois. But as many Americans have long been in the habit of dropping the initial A, it seems more likely that that’s what happened with the new settlers, and they brought that pronunciation with them from the United States and to some of the company. Villages and land grants established back then still exist today in Trinidad. And so the diaspora has so much history. Had you heard about this military history of the Merikins before? 

Richard Brookshire [00:37:18] No, I hadn’t. I had not. And until I came across I think I came across a tweet. And so I found out initially. 

Richard Brookshire [00:37:25] Like I’ve always learned something new. But I will say this shout out to my mom. She did. She just completed her master’s degree in African-American religious studies at Xavier. And she wrote a paper about basically the kind of build out of the of the Catholic Church in Savannah. But it was basically brought to Savannah by Haitians who had served in the American Revolutionary War. So so, yeah, and they basically helped to propagate Catholicism in the region. So, yeah, and I didn’t know I had known that Haitians had served in the American Revolution. So we’ve been here since the beginning helping y’all. So so, yeah. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:38:04] Well, I mean, you know, have you done much international travel in the Caribbean? You know, I know that you’ve spent time in Haiti, but, you know, have you traveled around the Caribbean either for work or for pleasure or for military service? 

Richard Brookshire [00:38:17] Not yet. I had a I had Jamaican stepfather growing up, some very familiar with Jamaica and Jamaicans. I grew up in South Florida, which is a bastion of just West Indian. So by proximity. But I’ve not actually spent time significantly throughout the Caribbean. My partner is Bajan, so I get to learn a lot about about Barbados and just kind of like the the the the wider Caribbean, you know, by way of being in love with him. So, so yeah, yeah, yeah. So yeah. 

Richard Brookshire [00:38:46] Well, I mean, whatever you. 

Richard Brookshire [00:38:47] Do, though, I’m going to Bermuda for our wedding, oh, next month. So that is my first time leaving the United States since I’ve got back from Afghanistan. But here we are. It’s been a decade.

Dr. Christina Greer [00:38:55] Well, you know, it’s so interesting because, you know, our listeners know I have to leave America to be able to stay in America. 

Richard Brookshire [00:39:02] You stay gone. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:39:04] My passport stays hot. You know, just like Mark Twain. Mark Twain had to leave America pretty frequently so he could understand and write about America more succinctly. And I have that same spirit. I have to be away from this country several times a year even to better understand my placement in American society as a Black person, as a woman, as an American. I got to get off this mountain. 

Richard Brookshire [00:39:29] Yeah. Get off the rock. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:39:31] Literally, you know, sometimes being an island, looking at it. 

Richard Brookshire [00:39:34] You know, it’s so interesting that you say that because I was talking to my partner about that, too. It’s like, you know. Yeah. Anyways, but yeah, just thinking about it sometimes I get almost like writer’s block or I know your mind gets so overwhelmed by not only just having to exist in America, but having to study and look at it and engage and interface and live in it. And that sometimes it could be a utility to like actually step away from it, to look from the outside. Not something I’ve applied, but, you know, perhaps it’s a mentorship happening right now in this podcast.  

Dr. Christina Greer [00:40:02] Always, you know, as my students now, it’s like once once I’m a mentor or a mentor forever, you’re stuck with me. Okay, We’re. 

Richard Brookshire [00:40:08] You’re going to take me on one of your trips one day. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:40:12] You know what? That’s a promise. That’s a promise. Maybe it’ll be your post documentary celebration trip. We’ll go someplaces and just, you know, drink cocktails and celebrate. Okay. We’re going to take a quick commercial break. And when we come back, we’re going to play the Black Lightning Round. Okay, Richard, before I let you out of here, we got time for Black Lightning. So this is the part of the program where there are no right answers. This is just for you to tell me how you feel about particular topics. If you had to choose, which is better, your time at Morehouse or your time at Columbia? 

Richard Brookshire [00:40:50] Now, you already know. Morehouse. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:40:52] Favorite James Baldwin book? 

Richard Brookshire [00:40:54] Hmm. The Fire Next Time. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:40:56] Okay. Favorite genre of music? 

Richard Brookshire [00:41:01] Ooh. R&B. R&B, seventies soul, R&B, I can always. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:41:06] Okay. 

Richard Brookshire [00:41:07] Going on back. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:41:08] Favorite meal? 

Richard Brookshire [00:41:10] Favorite meal? That’s hard. I like to eat some. Some kind of dessert, Some kind of chocolaty goodness. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:41:17] Okay, well, then this leads into the last question. Favorite sweet tooth snack? 

Richard Brookshire [00:41:22] I would say some kind of cake. Some kind of cake. Any kind of cake. 

Richard Brookshire [00:41:25] Any kind of cake. 

Richard Brookshire [00:41:26] It got to be like it has to be moist. It has to be like have a nice, creamy center. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:41:31] Okay. Like a nice chocolate torte or something? 

Richard Brookshire [00:41:34] Yeah, some, you know. Yeah. Yeah. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:41:37] So, Richard, I just want to thank you for joining us at the Blackest Questions. I want to thank you for your service. And I want to thank you for starting the Black Veterans Project so we can all learn more about the contributions of African-Americans in our armed services across time. Since there have been so many great Black folks who have fought for and defended this country for decades and decades, I guess in almost every war that we’ve ever endeavored. And this country loves being at war. So thank you for your research and your scholarship and your patience as you dig through the crates to bring all these stories to light. And especially promise me that you’ll come back to the Blackest Questions and play with us again. 

Richard Brookshire [00:42:16] Anytime. 

Dr. Christina Greer [00:42:17] All right. You all have been listening to the Black Box questions. This show is produced by Sasha Armstrong, Akilah Sheldrick and Jeffrey Trudeau. Regina Griffin is our managing editor of podcasts. And if you like what you heard, subscribe to this podcast so you never miss an episode. And please download the app and listen and watch many more great shows. Thanks for listening.